Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!


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All of a flutter

I originally drafted this for my church magazine back in the middle of April and I was delighted to say that there were butterflies fluttering around the garden in the exceptionally warm spring weather.  On that particular day I spotted Brimstone, Holly Blue, White and a Peacock. Today I’ve been able to spot a Small White, Holly Blue again and Speckled Wood. I am truly grateful to see this activity as the picture nationally in terms of butterfly numbers is rather depressing.  The Butterfly Conservation charity regarded the summer of 2021 as one of the worst on record.  If you think back, last spring had a long cold spell which put everything back by a couple of weeks which can’t have helped. 

Ever present Holly Blues enjoy our lilac (c) Elizabeth Malone

Seeing a butterfly in the garden on one of the first warm days of the year always gives me a little thrill.  It’s real sign that spring is just around the corner, but there’s more to butterflies than their delightful colours and a little bit of seasonal joy. Butterflies are an indicator of the health of our environment and are also an important pollinator.  It’s easy to focus on bees as pollinators but, see a butterfly perched on a flower probing for nectar, and you’re quickly reminded of their importance.

Verbena Bonariensis is one of the most popular sources of nectar in our garden (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m no expert when it comes to butterflies and I had to look up how many species we have in the UK.  Apparently it’s 59, two of which are regular migrants.  The migrants are the Painted Lady and Clouded Yellow.  I do remember seeing several Painted Ladies in the garden one summer when there was a huge migration and it made headline news.  When I say that I’m no expert, I really mean it.  I think I can identify about ten species of butterfly and I’m afraid to say that when it comes to moths my knowledge is non-existent!  I find butterflies and moths surprisingly hard to identify.  I have a book that groups them by colour but I can often find myself in the ‘blue’ section, only to discover that they book considers the butterfly to be ‘white’.  It is not helpful!  You can also get rather distracted by names in the process too.  After all, who wouldn’t want to come across a Dingy Skipper!

Comma butterfly on Verbena Bonariensis in our garden (c) Elizabeth Malone

The beauty of butterflies is that you really don’t need a garden to appreciate them.  A walk in your local park on a summer’s day is definitely enhanced by butterflies.  If you venture into one of our wilder, larger local spaces such as Bushy or Richmond parks, you are also likely to see species that might otherwise not turn up in your garden.  Two summer’s ago I finally worked out what a Small Skipper was courtesy of a walk in Bushy when they seemed to be everywhere.  Crane Park is also an excellent spot for a walk with butterflies.  I saw one of my first Jersey Tiger moths in Crane during the summer of 2020.  They adore nettles and there are plenty of those in Crane Park!

Small Skipper, Bushy Park (c) John Malone

If you do have a garden, or even a balcony, you can help our butterflies by planting pollinator friendly plants.  Back in 2011, the RHS launched a scheme which is now called ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ and enabled growers to label certain plants with the bee symbol so that gardeners can identify wildlife friendly plants.  Perfect for Pollinators may have a bee as its symbol but it is targeted at all pollinators – bees, hoverflies and butterflies.  Most flowering plants listed here will have single flowers as these are easier for pollinators to access but it will also include plants that are known to be rich in nectar and pollen.  I hope it goes without saying but if you want a butterfly-friendly garden, you will need to ditch the pesticides and you may also have to be a little less tidy.  Enabling your grass to grow a little longer encourages wildflowers which are good sources of nectar.  You don’t need to go as far as ploughing up the lawn and sowing a wildflower meadow, even though they can be very beautiful.

Wildflower meadow, NPL Teddington (c) John Malone

As is often the case when writing these articles, it’s made me list the butterflies I regularly see in our garden.  I’m pleased to say the list includes Large White, Small White, Peacock, Brimstone, Speckled Wood, Gatekeeper, Holly Blue, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Orange Tip and an occasional Jersey Tiger.  I think that’s probably the limit of what we’re likely to attract.

Gatekeeper in the garden last summer (c) Elizabeth Malone

Last June we spent a week in Dorset.  Three things really stood out for me.  Firstly, Dorset County Council has a conservation project of verge trials which meant that all the main roads we drove along were lined with an astonishing display of wildflowers.  It was really stunning.  Secondly, we walked around a sculpture trail in a disused quarry where there were butterflies everywhere, and I mean everywhere!  I don’t know when I’ve seen so many.  In particular, we kept seeing large white ones with lots of spots which I have since learned is the Marbled White.  Thirdly, we walked a small stretch of the South-West Coastal Trail near Osmington Mills where again we were accompanied by dozens and dozens of butterflies.  All of this added up to the feeling that we were in an area that truly values its wildlife and biodiversity.

Portland Sculpture trail wildflowers – the butterflies refused to stay still! (c) Elizabeth Malone


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July brings …

Hot July brings cooling showers,

Apricots, and gillyflowers.

Gillyflowers?  I can hear you all asking, what are they?  Well apparently they are several things.  They can be wallflowers or sweet Williams, and back in Shakespeare’s day, the name was used to refer to carnations.  More recently, the term has been linked to ‘pinks’ or dianthus which I’d never grown until this spring.

Two years’ ago we were visiting the lovely garden of Broughton House in Kirkudbright in Dumfries when John spotted this small, perfectly formed pink flower.  Foolishly we didn’t ask what it was and assumed that, as it was a type of dianthus, it would be easy to find somewhere – ha, ha!  We’ve never yet managed to track it down.

Mystery dianthus at Broughton House (c) John Malone

Inspired by this, we have picked up pots of dianthus in garden centres on and off and flicked through catalogues, but never actually committed to buying any until this spring when two pots accompanied us home from Wisley one day.  It was May – cold, a bit damp, and generally grey and miserable.  The plants were put to one side for potting up later as I wanted them to replace winter violas that were still flowering but about to die back.  Stupidly I took my eye off the ball.  The weather changed rapidly on the bank holiday weekend and the poor plants were fried!  I dunked them into a bowl of water and slowly over the course of the next couple of days they picked up but they still bear the scars.  Many of the leaves are still scorched brown and we’ve lost one flush of flowers.  So let that be a lesson to us as “hot July” approaches and, judging by recent years, we’re unlikely to get many “cooling showers”!

Dianthus – nearly fried! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Pinks, or dianthus, are quite scented but it’s a smell that I can’t quite make up my mind whether I like or not.  It’s quite spicy.  Often described as ‘clove-like’, I’m not sure I can smell that connection.  However, that did set me off thinking about scent in our garden.  As long-standing readers of this column will know, I do plant a lot for wildlife, especially for bees and butterflies, and although scent has a role to play here, most of my ‘plants for pollinators’ were chosen more for their flower shape than their scent.  For example, the flowers that have been attracting dozens of bees during June have been the poppies.  The buzzing of the bees reverberates around the flower head as they bury themselves deep down in the centre of the bloom, causing the petals to almost rattle.  However, to the best of my knowledge, poppies are unscented.  That said, the lavender is about to take centre stage and that is extremely fragrant.  It will soon be covered in bees but I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen butterflies head towards it.

Beauty of Livermere attacting bees (c) John Malone

Butterflies tend to prefer to perch on top of flat, open flowers.  They love the echinacea, another unscented plant, and also the verbena bonariensis.  Verbena is deceptive.  You could be forgiven for thinking that it is another flat flowerhead until you look carefully and you will see that the flower is made up of dozens upon dozens of tiny little tubes of nectar. Looking back through my photos, I realise the verbena is loved by bees, hoverflies and dragonflies as well as butterflies!

Large White enjoying Verbena Bonariensis last summer (c) Elizabeth Malone

It will be interesting to see how the summer progresses but currently I’m worried about butterflies in south-west London.  We saw quite a few in the garden in April – small whites, holly blues, commas, brimstones and the occasional peacock, but on the warm days in June we hardly saw a thing.  Has that been the effect of that long, cold May?  Last year we were lucky enough to see both a cinnabar moth and a Jersey tiger in the garden, in fact the Jersey tiger seemed to be everywhere.  We saw it in Crane Park and also in a local hedgerow but so far, nothing out of the ordinary this summer. 

A Jersey Tiger enjoying the nettles of Crane Park last summer (c) Elizabeth Malone

One of my experiments to attract more insects to the garden has been the sowing of a wildflower bed.  Returning to my original theme of scent, it’s interesting to note that it didn’t play a part in my plan.  Having never grown wildflowers before, I decided not to go mad and dig up the lawn but instead to sow some seed into a large re-usable gro-sack.  Instead of filling the sack with the obvious multi-purpose compost, I bought topsoil and mixed it with old spent compost and lots of grit in order to downgrade the quality of the planting medium.  Wildflowers, after all, don’t need to be pampered!  I then simply scattered over a packet of mixed seed and waited.  Initially I was annoyed by it as the sack sagged badly under the weight of the soil and it didn’t look particularly attractive but it is now flowering.  The only thing is, I’m not sure what the flowers are that have emerged!  I’m also not sure how well it’s doing on attracting insects – I’ve seen just one hoverfly so far!

My first wildflowers (c) Elizabeth Malone

If you’ve been wondering whether I’m going to mention apricots somewhere in this article, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you.  We have fruit trees but not apricots.  We also have a lot of fruit and I can assure you that one of the things that is most attractive to bees is raspberries.  My advice is pick with care!!


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All creatures great and small

Health warning – I’m about to be controversial this month!  How do you like your verges?  Those strips of ground along the sides of pavements, roads and around car parks?  Do you look for bowling green perfection?  Are you happy with rough and ready?  Or would you like to see something attractive but relaxed and informal, not too neat?  This year I’ve been focusing Outside the Back Door on what we can all do in our gardens and back yards to improve our environment and do our little bit for the climate crisis but this month I want to look slightly further afield.  Not too far, probably just as far as the top of the road.

Wildflower meadow at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington (c) Elizabeth Malone

One effect of the Coronavirus lockdown was councils having to re-prioritise tasks and budgets.  In many cases the need to trim verges around the boroughs fell to the bottom of the list.  In my own borough, the debate escalated recently as “enraged of RIchmond” took to social media to complain that standards were slipping and how ghastly it was to see all these wild flowers blooming around verges and attracting, shock, horror, insects!  As you might imagine, those of a different persuasion equally fought their corner, arguing the case strongly for this more relaxed, environmentally friendly approach – an approach which, in fairness, has already been deliberately adopted by some local authorities.  

Hampton Cemetery in Spring 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone

With so many appreciating getting closer to nature during lockdown, or rather nature getting closer to them, the role played by our in-between spaces, such as verges, can’t be ignored.  If we’re to hear more birdsong, we need to ensure plenty of insects around for birds to feed on – they can’t live on our nut and seed feeders alone!  And if we want to be dazzled by beautiful butterflies, we must provide the nectar to sustain them.  Our rougher, more unkempt verges can bloom and become a really important source of food.

Cabbage whites particularly like verbena it seems (c) Elizabeth Malone

Insects must surely be the most reviled of all God’s creatures?  I’m the first to admit that I will run a mile from a wasp and can only remove spiders up to a certain dimension!  I’ve only been stung by a bee once (I hope I don’t regret writing that!) and it was a painful experience.  Thankfully it’s not put me off encouraging bees into the garden.  Any plant I buy these days comes with the ‘bee friendly’ tag.  Scientists have shown that without bees we couldn’t survive.  So imagine my concern when, during that very hot spell towards the end of June, I kept finding large bumblebees dying on my lawn.  At the time our ‘lawn’ was a mass of clover as we’d stopped cutting due to the drought.  Every day we were finding one or two bees staggering across the flower heads and then they would just stop, literally dead in their tracks.  It was so sad to see.  I was so concerned that I contacted the local Wildlife Trust who introduced me to a new Facebook group called Nature in Richmond.  There I found other people reporting the same thing but also bee ‘experts’ who explained that the UK’s bumblebee populations are moving north due to warmer summers in the south of England as a result of climate change.  

Bees fighting over the echinacea in our garden (c) Elizabeth Malone

Joining this Facebook group has been a revelation.  You can post a photograph of just about anything wildlife related and someone is likely to know the answer.  Apart from recognising their importance, I confess I know almost nothing about insects but I have been delighted to post a photo of, for example, a hoverfly and to have it identified as a ‘marmalade hoverfly’.  Another colourful mystery was a red-belted clear-wing moth!  I’ve discovered that sightings such as this also get logged by the South-West London Environmental Network and added to their Biodiversity Record.  So whilst it’s a great source of information (and of some fabulous photography I should add), it’s also rewarding to know that we’re contributing to understanding the nature around us.

Red-belted clearwing moth in our garden as identified by the local nature group
(c) Elizabeth Malone

So whilst we’re on the topic of insects, let’s not forget the butterflies and my impression is that it has been a good summer for them.  I’ve carried out one or two butterfly counts in the garden and uploaded them to the Butterfly Conservation Trust who run this annual survey.  Across the summer I’m delighted to have seen large and small whites, commas, peacocks, red admirals, holly blues, brimstones, speckled wood and an abundance of gatekeepers.  However, a couple of weeks ago I saw a flash of orange followed by a flash of black and white that settled on the crab apple tree.  Before I could take a closer look it had fluttered away.  I went to get the camera but by then it had vanished.  A few days later I was walking in Crane Park and saw the same thing.  This time it was more obliging and settled on a convenient nettle patch ready to be photographed – a Jersey Tiger!  I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen one of these before and I’m delighted to say that I’ve seen another since in a local road where there is an unkempt verge, full of nettles (and sadly dumped rubbish).  Butterflies love nettles and wild flowers that are rich in nectar.  They are also a very important indicator of the health of our environment.  So it’s back to those grass verges again.

Jersey Tiger butterfly on hydrangea leaves in our garden August 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone